This is nature photography at its finest. Vulture No. 803 is freed and looks straight into the lens of Menahem Kahana, near Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, on September 10. The bird’s full wingspan is visible. Also captured with perfect focus is the way in which the vulture and its flight merge into a unity: an efficiency of feathers, muscles, fat, cartilage, claws. The vulture is gliding, its bent beak hard and slicing the center of the frame. Its black spherical eyes on the sides of its small head are aimed forward, its expression focused and empty.
Anthropomorphizing is out of the question. This bird does not look cute, and it is not cute: it’s a vulture. It has eating habits that people might find disgusting. It is an animal. Israel Nature and Parks Authority documents monitoring vultures state that, as of July 2012, only 146 of the birds are left in Israel. The number is known from feeding stations and through follow-up, with the aid of tags like the one that has been attached to the wing of the vulture in the photograph.
This is a superb nature shot, because it perpetuates a supreme moment in which the bird does what nature intended it to do. It is a photograph of technical precision − which cannot be taken for granted, and can be ascribed honorably to the National Geographic category − having to do with our instinctive expectation that this technology will enable us to have an encounter with the actual: not with talk, not with symbolism, not with the imagined, not with what is connected to a chain of opinions; but with the hard matter, with the biology, with the real thing.
Menahem Kahana’s photograph elicits an immediate “Wow!” because it captures the bird at a moment when it is performing an act that it alone can do. In this sense, he is displaying equanimity toward the event he is depicting journalistically, and is concentrated on the creature itself and on the instant of the encounter with its essence, from his point of view. It’s a fascinating situation, which is not quite documentation of nature itself − after all, the bird has just been set free by human hands − but is far from the experience of observing an animal in the zoo.
An article by English art critic John Berger, “Why look at animals?” (from his book of essays, “About Looking”) − which was mentioned in this column in the context of a heartrending photograph of a lion in a safari park, anesthetized for hormone treatment − describes the process by which animals were marginalized in the world.
Berger takes note of animals that are sharing cages with other species, as though within frames, like pictures at an exhibition. Hence the expectation that they will amuse and entertain us, that they will be interesting, as in an exhibition, and the concomitant disappointment when they do not do this; that they are tired, depressed, drowsy or otherwise restricted.
Nature photography, not that of zoos or cages, sets a different standard for looking at animals and raises different expectations of the photographs. The amazement at Kahana’s marvelous photograph is divided equally between saluting his artistic ability to capture the essence of flight, and at the same time evoking awareness that the photograph is not merely set in nature. This photo describes interference in nature on many levels, and tells us that nature itself is undergoing incessant mediation: in this case, the vulture is, after all, marked, labeled and monitored.
The vulture can no longer be secret or disappear, and the photograph − even though it hones in on the bird’s pure flight − cannot “reveal” the vulture. It can capture one aspect of it in unnatural circumstances. The vulture, like people, can no longer hide, and has no way to survive without help. And, like the zoos of yore, when people encounter animals in nature they want them to entertain, put on a performance for them, show them how they feed. Because just gazing at them is no longer satisfying.
But in Kahana’s photograph, gazing at the animal is still enough. We can discern something of a smile on the blurred face of the person in the wide red pants and the black shirt who is behind the group of people, all of whom are wearing djellabas and sitting at a makeshift table under the sun. It becomes clear that people are present in every “nature” photo, that there is no nature without them, that observation already contains them − both when they set an animal free and also when they do other deeds.